By Joy Ehonwa
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I wasn’t ready for what I got.
I had been looking forward to visiting First Consultants Medical Centre again, but having moved far away from that vicinity, I needed a good reason.
A second pregnancy was what I had in mind. I cannot forget the compassion and dexterity the staff had shown when I had my first child there in 2012, having conceived with the assistance of the excellent gynaecologist who is also the hospital’s CMD. They deftly navigated the choppy waters of a threatened miscarriage at 6 weeks, and preterm labour at a little over 34 weeks. While many agree that the experience of being a first time mother is unforgettable, mine was made even more so by pregnancy-induced hypertension that rendered my body too hostile for my unborn baby to thrive. He arrived early and small, weighing just 1.54kg.
After I went into spontaneous preterm labour, my precious baby spent four infection-free weeks in the Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU) at First Consultants, where he was lovingly and expertly cared for: skilled and committed nurses taught me how to prepare a sitz bath and express breast milk They also gave me a vital reading material for new mothers. They comforted me when I wept over having to leave the hospital with no baby in my womb and no baby in my arms. They took turns watching my baby night and day, and feed him devotedly. First through an NG tube and later with a syringe. They made sure my husband and I took off all jewelry, washed and disinfected our hands, and put on fresh scrubs and slippers every single time we went to see our baby.
I was immensely grateful for the expert care I received at First Consultants at the time, but I had no idea just how grateful I, and other Nigerians, would be when two years later Patrick Sawyer would arrive from Liberia, bringing Ebola with him. First Consultants paid an enormous price to save Nigeria from the devastation of the Ebola Virus Disease. Their team of exceptionally competent professionals resisted pressure to let Sawyer out, and eight of them paid with their lives. The hospital was shut down for weeks, while The World Health Organisation (WHO) team thoroughly decontaminated it, removing and burning most of the equipment and furniture.
Nigerians expressed their gratitude, as did The Lagos State Ministry of Health: “The Ministry acknowledges the role your facility played in alerting the State Government of the index case of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) and appreciates your altruistic gestures in containing and managing this deadly virus, thus preventing an epidemic.
On August 29, 2014, the Federal Government issued First Consultants a certificate of decontamination, and Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola re-opened it in October. While I had hoped to return there pregnant, when diarrhoea and vomiting kept us up one November night, we had to make the best decision for our son. An exceptionally healthy child, he hadn’t fallen ill since he left the incubator, and we wanted him to be in capable hands so, to First Consultants we went, and here’s what I experienced when I stepped in:
Walking into the hospital that had survived such a significant attack and spared Nigeria unimaginable devastation, as I hugged the staff, their faces familiar and dear, I wondered how they had found the strength to survive the indescribable trauma. I felt unexpected pride. As I walked the hallways and climbed the stairs, I felt proud to be in a place posterity owed great gratitude and honour. I was proud to hold a patient card, proud to be a part of this institution in a small way.
It rushed over me like calming, soothing water. Everything about First Consultants still announced competence. My son hadn’t been there in two years but his file appeared out of the thousands of files in a matter of minutes, loaded with vital information and carefully written notes. The nurses who weighed him were full of smiles, and the paediatrician who attended to him was, naturally, brilliant. I had to wonder what I had been expecting. The standards that had endeared the hospital to us and many others had not changed.
But sadness also gripped me when I saw all that was different, and it wasn’t just the new furniture and arrangements which I knew must have cost them greatly. It was the strange quietness that spoke loudly of a poor business. The rooms were empty, the nurses far less busy than they used to be. I felt the weight of the trauma and sacrifice, but I was even more dismayed by the effects of stigma.
I spoke with the Senior Matron who had taken care of me in the days after delivery and she confirmed what I already knew. I listened to her with my eyes firmly fixed on her face, to avoid looking at the picture of the late Senior Consultant Physician and Endocrinologist, Dr. Stella Ameyo Adadevoh, pinned on her blouse. She told me how scarce patients were, how painful and shocking the reality of stigmatisation was.
As I left, I wondered if this was the way to appreciate a hospital that sacrificed so much for us. I wondered how former patients felt when they chose to go elsewhere for no other reason than the fear of contracting Ebola. I wondered how different our lives would be if, instead of being propelled by fear, we stopped to think, to feel, to remember. Fear is natural, yet it is only those who overcome it that get to enjoy the good things on the other side.
I have decided to live consciously and boldly. I have chosen the good things; amazing antenatal classes, an OB/GYN whose skill is unmatched, caregivers with heart and proficiency, topnotch paediatric care for my children, and the joys that come with constancy and lifelong ties maintained through thick and thin.